I recently watched a conversation between Richard Dawkins and the redoubtable Cardinal George Pell. As you might expect, given that dramatis personae, it revolved around the “God question”. It was not a recent encounter. It dated back about a decade or so, but already within it there were signals of what was to come in terms of the unjust persecution of George Pell which was to unfold over the years since then. It was hosted by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. The abysmal dereliction of ABC’s media responsibilities in the saga of that prosecution could already be sensed in the uneven-handed role of their chosen moderator for this encounter. That, however, is a topic for another time. 

Just now what is of interest is the discussion itself between these two  and the the lights which it throws on our world, our faith and the enduring struggles of our race to see and understand what our lives and our existence mean. The protagonists in that little drama represented in a real way the two choices which mankind as a whole is faced with – that of choosing between the two paths on offer to us in our passage through this world – revealing the hopeless and tragic nature of one as opposed to the hopeful and joy-filled prospect opened up by the other.

The contrast between the two men was striking indeed. The easily agitated Dawkins, while not quite his usual arrogant self, but bordering on it, did not seem as comfortable in his skin as the calm and assured Pell. The latter was unruffled and quietly confident with his vision of the divine and the divinely balanced harmony of the natural and supernatural worlds. His vision was grounded in his grasp of that one thing which Dawkins found incomprehensible – that there might be, paraphrasing Hamlet, more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in his philosophy. Any man for whom Aristotelian metaphysics is little more than gobbledygook is a man lost at sea in the world occupied by a man like George Pell.

It can only be with sadness that we contemplate the limited vision of our fellow men and women of whom Dawkins is a type. He is the type of the “scandalised” man explained to us by Romano Guardini in his book, The Humanity of Christ, when he speaks to us of the tragedy of the “antithesis of faith”. He recalls the words of Christ when he responded to John the Baptist’s question addressed to him through his disciples, “Art thou he that is to come that is to come, or look we for another?” At the end of his answer to the Baptist, Christ adds, “And blessed is he that shall not be scandalised in me” (Mat. 11. 3, 6)

Christ, by his incarnation, was the like of which had never been seen before – he was, is, “the beginning” of something utterly new and as such made an astounding demand on those who would choose to follow him. It was a choice to be made in full freedom but a freedom which if exercised wrongly, deprived the denier of all access to the Truth itself. As Guardini put it,

The possibility that people would be scandalised by him was part of his nature, for the very reason that he is the beginning. He expected men to give up the certainties of this world and risk everything for his sake. If a man was able to accept these terms, then the new relationship of grace and of faith emerged and a new life began. But if the man shut up his heart and  refused, then he rebelled against the notion that Christ  was expecting this of him; and this constitutes being scandalised.

Faith or scandal: these are the only real attitudes caused in man by Christ. Faith sees him as the beginning and takes its stance there. It is prepared to think and live as from Christ, to submit to his judgement and appeal to his grace. Scandal affirms that he is the enemy of life, the world’s adversary, and declares on him a war the like of which is unknown. Perhaps the only clearly defined lesson of history is to the effect that this cleavage becomes more and more pronounced. More and more  obviously the world is becoming divided into those  who believe in Christ and those who find him a scandal. (The Humanity of Christ, pp 125-6).

This is the tragedy – and the challenge – of our time. It is not new. It is indeed both triumph and tragedy, just as the events on Golgotha two thousand years ago were, and still are, both triumph and tragedy. Similarly, the story of each man’s salvation or otherwise is triumph or tragedy, every day. And for each man and woman seeking salvation herein lies the challenge, a challenge which was playing out before our eyes as George Pell sought to dialogue with Richard Dawkins in that hostile television studio ten years ago.

It is also the challenge foreseen by Karl Adam when he wrote in his book “The Son of God”, many decades ago, of the immense danger facing European Christians of his time. Then, he said, – and the danger is even more acute in our time – “not only individual thinkers but thought itself has consciously turned from God and become atheistical; and this is even true of Christian thought in Europe. All our thoughts and opinions move in ruts which only have a meaning on purely naturalistic presuppositions, in as much as they  are deliberately and on principle limited to sensual experience.” G. K. Chesterton, he recalled, said, “The natural can be the most unnatural of all things to a man.” A vision of the world, the great apologist was arguing, which deliberately confines itself to natural occurrences is actually unnatural, for it takes the smallest section of reality to be the whole reality, and ignores or denies the ultimate roots of this reality, its profoundest relations, its connection with the invisible, the super-terrestrial, the divine. 

Adam described how our thought is now divorced from the totality of being, from the wealth of all the possibilities, since it has isolated itself from the creative thought of God. Modern man, in his view, in breaking away from faith, thought he could emancipate all human thought from the creative thought of God; he artificially mapped out a particular field of reality and called it Nature,  encouraging “the evil illusion” that the other reality, the supernatural, was  a more or less secondary reality – or worse, a delusion. The consequence was that nature was secularised by being released from its actual union with the supernatural, and the fiction was favoured that Nature was a thing per se capable of complete and independent explanation.

The way out of our impasse, he maintained was to again take seriously the truth that the possibilities of modern man do not exhaust God’s possibilities, and that our thought is conditioned and bounded in time and therefore in no sense comparable with the absolute thought of God. To do this wmust again become little before God and abandon our arrogant autonomy and autocracy, our narrow-minded rationalism and “sickly enlightenment”. He wrote that we must again return to ourselves, to our true nature, to the child in us. “Never in the whole history of the West was the word of Jesus so full of significance, so charged with fate as it is today, that word which he spoke to his own disciples: Unless  you … become as little children, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt. 18:3)

And this huge gap in the vision of modern man is at core of the heart-breaking tragedy unfolding itself in the lives of Richard Dawkins and all campaigning atheists and their fellow travellers. It is as a virus in the soul, more deadly than any in the physiological order, deadly for us as persons and deadly for our civilisation which has never looked more decadent than it does today. This scandalising and blinding virus calls for a response from all those with the vision of truth which Cardinal George Pell, by the grace of God, has. They also can do as he does: calmly, and with clarity and affection, try to bring them to a vision of the truth – but all the time realising also that in this endeavour, without the grace of God accompanying them, all the words in the world are as so much hot air. For those now living among the fragments of what we call Western Civilisation, this is the great challenge of our time.

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